Understanding Doctor Who Part III: The Essential Doctor Who

So you want to get into Doctor Who and aren't quite sure how to do that? New Who is easy. Pick up Series 1 and watch them all four from there (but see below). Classic Who is another matter entirely. There's so much of it, and not everything is easily available. Some episodes have even been wiped and no longer exist at all except as audio tracks!

More than 30 seasons, 200 stories, 750 individual episodes, 10 Doctors, dozens of companions, and counting. That's a lot of material to sift through. Siskoid to the rescue. I'll try to give you the absolutely essential viewing list to get yourself up to date and a proper Whovian. I'll follow a couple of rules though:

1. Only stories currently complete on DVD will be included. I will indicate when these are currently only Region 2 - these usually become available in North America within a year of their UK release.
2. I will include at least one story per Doctor. Part of the Who experience is to get a sense for each of them and their specific era.
3. There are different reasons to include a story - relevance to future stories, continuity, important moments, and of course quality - I'll use color and typeface to indicate the level of importance each story has in the list.
Bold Black - These are stories that are your must-see list.
Bold Blue - Only included for their quality, these will reward viewers who want to to watch the best of the best as opposed to the key episodes. It doesn't mean you should skip the "must-see list", which will also usually be of higher quality. It may be that these just don't have the continuity relevance to be Bold Black.
Any italics - These have a link to the new series that might interest new fans. If not in Bold, then the story is recommended only for that reference and not for its importance or quality. You have been forewarned.
Pictured - If you can only watch ONE to get a feel for each particular Doctor's era, make it that one.
4. All stories in order of broadcasting, not importance.

1st Doctor (Susan, Ian, Barbara, Vicki, Steven, Dodo, Ben & Polly)
An Unearthly Child - Where it all began (in The Beginning DVD boxed set)
The Daleks - The first appearance of the Daleks will surprise you with its production values (also in The Beginning DVD boxed set)
The Aztecs - The best of the surviving historicals
The Dalek Invasion of Earth - The Daleks return setting the stage for many, many more repeat appearances. Also, a companion leaves the series for the first time!
(The Time Meddler) - We meet the first other Time Lord ever, which clearly changes everything. Not a must-see right now, but it may become important if the rumors of Patrick Stewart's casting as the Meddling Monk become a reality.
I wish they'd hurry up and release: The Tenth Planet - The first appearance of the Cybermen (as creepy bandaged cyborgs) AND the first regeneration. Of course, that last episode has been lost, but animation could replace it as has been done for the 2nd Doctor story The Invasion.

2nd Doctor (Ben & Polly, Jamie, Victoria, Zoe)
The Tomb of the Cybermen - In the absence of The Tenth Planet, check out Tomb for a good, freaky Cyberman story, with the 2nd Doctor in great form.
The Invasion - The first appearance of UNIT, though the Brigadier first appeared earlier as a Colonel. Cybermen again, and two episodes replaced by animation.
I wish they'd hurry up and release: The Ice Warriors - As one of the big (though not often used) Doctor Who monsters, the Ice Warriors could make a comeback in the new series. I'd hate to only have the sluggish The Seeds of Death to recommend when that happens. Two episodes are missing, but that's a lot less than most of the Troughton era.

3rd Doctor (UNIT, Liz, Jo, Sarah Jane)
Spearhead from Space - It's Pertwee's very first Doctor and the start of the new UNIT set-up and the Doctor's exile on Earth. Plus, first appearance of the Autons, which will be familiar to new series fans.
Inferno - Everybody likes a Mirror Universe story, right?
The Sea Devils - A strong example of UNIT stories, which also stars the original Master.
The Green Death - Jo leaves in a strong (if at times camp) story that represents the era well.
The Time Warrior - First Sarah Jane Smith. First Sontaran. Need I say more?
I wish they'd hurry up and release: Terror of the Autons - For one thing, it's the first appearance of the Master. For another, it's one of those stories that started the whole "Doctor Who is too violent" morality police campaign.

4th Doctor (Sarah Jane, Harry, Leela, K-9, Romana 1, Romana 2, Adric, Nyssa, Tegan)
Genesis of the Daleks - I can't believe this wasn't on Julie Gardner's reading list... The origin of the Daleks, and the first appearance of Davros.
Pyramids of Mars - Doctor Who does mummies.
The Brain of Morbius - Doctor Who does Frankenstein's Monster. Camp in the very best way.
The Hand of Fear - Fans of the new series will enjoy Sarah Jane's departure scene, linking to School Reunion.
The Robots of Death - Doctor Who does Agatha Christie as filtered through Isaac Asimov.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang - The very best of Classic Who, in many peoples' opinions. You'll find a lot of Robert Holmes scripts in this list, and for good reason.
The Ribos Operation and The Androids of Tara - The best of the Key to Time Season, though be warned they are part of a longer story (which introduces the concept of the Guardians - who do not return in my list)
City of Death - And this one is scripted by Douglas Adams, and often listed in the top 2 stories with the above.
I wish they'd hurry up and release: The Deadly Assassin - Though we visited Gallifrey before this story, this is where they took on their familiar look and feel, as a dusty, sterile society filled with politicians. After this, you won't be able to understand how the new series Doctor can miss his people so much. Announced for 2009.
K-9 & Company - On The Invisible Enemy DVD (which is the first appearance of K-9), tells of how Sarah Jane gets a K-9, but it's pretty awful. Duly warned.

5th Doctor (Tegan, Nyssa, Adric, Turlough, Peri)
Castrovalva - A regeneration story that introduces the 5th Doctor well.
Earthshock - This is the first time a real companion dies. It was a landmark.
Resurrection of the Daleks - Davros and the Daleks reappear in Destiny of the Daleks before then, but I can't bring myself to put it on this list. Easy enough to pick up the thread.
The Caves of Androzani - The best 5th Doctor story is also his last.
I wish they'd hurry up and release: Kinda and Snakedance - The Mara diptych features some of the strongest stories of the era.

6th Doctor (Peri, Mel)
Revelation of the Daleks - Davros and the Daleks appear once again in the best of the 6th Doctor stories. This is a rare televised story where the 6th Doctor and Peri are palatable (even if they're offscreen a lot of the time).
I wish they'd hurry up and release: At this time, only two 6th Doctor stories have yet to be released. Neither is of particular interest.

7th Doctor (Mel, Ace)
Remembrance of the Daleks - The last Dalek story for a while and a return to 1963, with links to the first episode.
Ghost Light - A textured and allusive story that showcases well the kind of storytelling attempted in the era, but it's not for everyone.
The Curse of Fenric - More accessible than Ghost Light, but definitely in the same vein, showing how this Doctor also manipulates his companion.
I wish they'd hurry up and release: Not sure... For purely personal reasons, I'd like to see The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

8th Doctor (Grace)
The TV Movie - That's all there is, folks! And it's not out in Region 1 because co-producer FOX probably has never seen a reason to release it. Maybe the new series will finally convince them. It's not a strong story by any means (Eric Roberts as an American Master is particularly embarassing), but you'll see Paul McGann made a fine Doctor, and how it was an influence for New Who (warts and all).
I wish they'd hurry up and release: The TV Movie

9th Doctor (Rose, Captain Jack)
His one series is a big arc, and there's nothing I would recommend skipping. Even the weaker stories (like The Long Game) are important to the larger story arcs.

10th Doctor (Rose, Mickey, Martha, Captain Jack, Donna)
Again, most of these are either important to the larger story or of high quality. If you're in a hurry you can skip:
The Idiot's Lantern
Fear Her (though I like it)
Love & Monsters (though I really like it)
The Infinite Quest
Missing all but the last of these may create situations where a passing reference becomes meaningless later, but that's it.

Conversely, if you're trying to watch ALL of New Who, including spin-offs, here's how it should go:
Series 1
Children in Need bit with Tennant followed by The Christmas Invasion (Series 2 boxed set)
Series 2
The Runaway Bride (Series 3 boxed set)
Children in Need bit "Attack of the Graske" interactive program (not on DVD, but does tie into Sarah Jane Adventures later)
Torchwood Series 1
Series 3 - insert The Infinite Quest after 42 or something
Children in Need bit "Time Crash" followed by Voyage of the Damned (Series 4 boxed set)
Sarah Jane Adventures Series 1
Torchwood Series 2
Series 4
Sarah Jane Adventures Series 2 (not yet on DVD)
The Next Doctor (and other specials this year, not yet on DVD)

Or if you want to dip into the new series out of order, which stories won't be massive spoilers for the overall arc that starts with Rose and ends with Journey's End four years later AND will give you a good, continuity-free stand-alone look at the new Doctors?
Series 1: Rose, The End of the Word, The Unquiet Dead, Dalek, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.
Series 2: Tooth and Claw, The Girl in the Fireplace, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, Fear Her
Series 3: The Runaway Bride, Smith and Jones, The Shakespeare Code, Human Nature/The Family of Blood, Blink
Series 4: The Fires of Pompeii, The Unicorn and the Wasp, Midnight

Here's hoping that can guide your Doctor Who viewing reasonably well. There are plenty of stories I personally like that aren't mentioned, but that wasn't the point, so I hope fans will forgive any omissions.


Anonymous said...

Wow Thanks man, i got myself some watching to do.
In fact i just finished to watch The Dead Planet yesterday. Going on to the survivors. I do appreciate the time you took for making this guide.

FoldedSoup said...

Very much appreciated. I meant to say that a few days ago when you started these primers. It was nice to be able to forward a link to any friends who wanted to know what all the hubbub was about after the recent new Doctor selection.

Then, you go and do something like this - a guide for us sheltered Yanks who are looking to delve in a bit further after enjoying the last two Doctors.

Now I have to go and re-send some links. Thank you, sir!

Anonymous said...

Wow! As I didn't get into the "new" who, this guide is (wait for it) exactly what The Doctor ordered.

Siskoid said...

As the only real Doctor to frequent this blog (as far as I know), I'll forgive you that pun.

Jayunderscorezero said...

Wow, kudos to you for all of the thought that must have gone into compiling this list.

I'm betting those people who voted against daily Who episode recaps are kicking themselves right now.

Michael May said...

Dude, I could hug you right now. This is EXACTLY what I've been needing for a couple of years now.

Siskoid said...

Please, no touching.

But you are very welcome ;-).

Jeff R. said...

I'm a bit surprised not to see a single one of the Multidoctor stories on the list. (Especially 5, which should at least get italics for the callback in season 2, even if you think the whole Timelord Founders Mythology is inherently unEssential...) (2 less so, but it is a better than average 6th doctor story. If a future season of New Who references or even uses the Valeyard, which story do you go for for that? Ditto the Rani.)

I'd personally pick Mawdryn Undead way above Caves, and Survival above Fenric any day of the week. (Not for BLS, just because they're favorite stories from those eras. Also because the setup stage of Turlough's arc was far better than the payoff ever was.)

naladahc said...

No Mind Robber love?

That's the first story that got me hooked.

People kept giving me 5th and 6th Doctor episodes but I really never liked them.

Then I discovered Troughton and Hartnell and became an addict.

Bill D. said...

No love for The Trial of a Time Lord? I'd argue it's important in terms of the ongoing Gallifrey continuity and as a look into the potential dark side of the Doctor (which Eccleston and Tennant have both shown in their characterizations).

Bill D. said...

Oh, and as for McCoy stories they need to hurry up and release, I'd say both Silver Nemesis and Battlefield.

Nik said...

Fantastic post and series Sisk, as a relative Who novice myself I sure dig your insights. I haven't seen anything of the 6th and 7th doctors yet (not that it sounds like I'm missing much).

Jack Norris said...

I'd put a good word in for Claws of Axos being a Pertwee story that I have a soft spot for, with a cool, unique alien menace with its interestingly (though, as usual for the time for the show, cheaply) done bio-ship.
Also, I'd say that while An Unearthly Child contains important untroductory material, nobody should feel guilty if they scan forward, or even hit chapter skip, during some of the interminable caveman argument scenes.
Invasion Of Time is the Tom Baker episode I'd vote for inclusion, if only for the over-the-top depiction of the Tardis's internal size with the big chase through miles of rooms and corridors (even if they're clearly those of a regular old building).
It's worth seeing certain bits of Colin Baker's first episode, Twin Dilemma, as it gives you a good intro to that Doctor's character, even if the twins themselves are boring.

Siskoid said...

Jeff: I could come back and update if and when that becomes an issue (the Valeyard will NEVER appear, but if you want the Rani, The Mark of the Rani is the only one on DVD). Mawdryn Undead isn't out either, which would have broken my first rule. Survival over Fenric? Definitely a matter of taste there. Multidoctor stories didn't meet the quality or clarity requirements for the relative newbie.

nalahdac: Mind Robber is far from essential. I cut a lot of stuff I liked to pair things down.

Bill: Trial is totally unessential to this list, which doesn't try to follow Time Lord continuity (it can't, not with Deadly Assassin not on DVD). I'm not sure I agree about your link to the new Doctors either. Battlefield comes out this year.

Nik: They have fewer stories PERIOD, so don't take the list as an indictment. The 7th Doctor has something to offer in particular. 6 is wayyyy better on audio, but that's a post for another day.

Jack: Yes, you can skip from episode 1 An Unearthly Child to The Daleks immediately. Twin Dilemma is not out on DVD (rule #1 again). The others are a matter of taste, but Invasion of Time is particularly terrible. I'm trying to make new fans here! ;-)

Unknown said...

Great list. Terror Of The Autons and a number of other classic Who arcs can be downloaded on iTunes, if you didn't know.

mwb said...

Some good choices. I'll mention that if you have a Netflix membership many of these are viewable as streaming video (free with you Netflix membership) on-line.

And iTunes and Amazon unbox has digital downloads for quite a bit of Dr. Who. Some things that have never been released on DVD too.

Siskoid said...

I don't have those kinds of memberships at this time, but will certainly keep those services in mind.


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